Message in a Bottle
Best of the Rest? No, the Rest of the Best

Another year brings another set of Top Ten lists and another reminder that those lists are supposed to be about the quality of the books rather than the number of them. That is, we like compiling our Best of the Year lists in fiction and non-fiction (and for the first time this year, in children’s and tween/teens) because it gives us a chance to look back over the last twelve months and remind ourselves how great the books we read were. The ten titles we listed in each category are our collective favorites, but it’s not as if we can really argue that they’re measurably better than the eleventh- and twelfth-best ones. Different readers (or the same readers in different circumstances) will have other favorites, which is why we always like to talk about the books that almost made the cut.

For example, The Infatuations by Javier Marías and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were among the last titles knocked off our fiction list. The first is a slowly unspooling mystery set in Spain and written wiith great psychological acuity by an author we’ve previously trumpeted as a potential Nobel laureate; the second is a novel that deals with decades of drug trafficking, not by explicitly detailing it, but by showing the after-effects on the next generation of Colombians. Both are intelligent, even brilliant works, but there didn’t seem to be room for them alongside Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles, which addresses political violence in Peru. Could we have included all this great Hispanophone fiction? Sure, but we felt like that would have unbalanced the list, so out those last two went.

That kind of horse-trading forces a great many excellent books off the winners page on our website, but fortunately, we have room on Message in a Bottle to give them their due. The rest of the best fiction of 2013:

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  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: There’s no truth to the rumor that we dropped this marvelous novel of romance between two Nigerian immigrants from our list because we were afraid to type the author’s dauntingly long name. We can prove that it’s false: Emma mentioned the book on our blog earlier in the year.
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: It’s hard to believe that fifty years have gone by since Pynchon first published. He remains as inventive, energetic, and in touch with the zeitgeist as ever.
  • Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Sparkling wit and emotional resonance don’t often walk hand in literary hand, but Segal marries them like no one else. James rhapsodized about her on the blog just recently.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The youngest-ever Booker Prize winner also wrote the longest-ever Booker Prize winner, concocting a rich historical stew that updates the 19th century for 21st century audiences.
  • & Sons by David Gilbert: A great novel for book lovers (aren’t we all?) about a genius writer who’s a sub-par father.
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: Winner of this year’s National Book Award (and author of the beloved memoir The Color of Water), McBride has outdone himself with this tale of a young boy, born a slave, who must pass as a girl to survive.
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Another success for Hosseini, long a favorite of island readers. Miriam took keyboard in hand some months ago to tell us exactly how good it is.
  • All That Is by James Salter: We don’t always trust the jacket flap to tell the real story, but in this case we do: “[A] young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and … finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. Romantic and haunting, All That Is … is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.”
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: A great discussion sparker, Messud’s novel provoked strong feelings that Miriam expressed in yet another blog post.

Great non-fiction that deserves a mention includes the following titles:

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  • Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr: Can you imagine the meals M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, and all their other friends cooked when they were together in the south of France? You don’t have to imagine them when you read Barr’s vivid history.
  • Mercer Island History by Jane Meyer Brahm: Local kid Brahm makes good. As the only book of its kind, anyone around here must obtain a copy. As a really tremendous book, all considerations about geography aside, you’ll be ecstatic to own one.
  • Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson: What was a “sideshow of a sideshow” in World War I, the carving up of the Arabian peninsula, set the stage for the most important geopoliticking of the current age. Anderson’s account is the best imaginable explanation of how those times led to today.
  • The Lost Carving by David Esterly: Our staff, but especially Roger, is interested in any book that deals with real work and the struggle to maintain a sense of authenticity in our increasingly plastic, ersatz era. Esterly’s memoir of self-education, about teaching himself the techniques of the master woodworkers of the 1600s, is riveting.
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Her story has often been told in the media, but not so well, nor so inspirationally, as she tells it herself.
  • Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander: This is a very difficult book to summarize, but James gave it a shot earlier in the year.

You probably have other books in mind, and we’d love to hear about them. There’s always room on our blog for comments, and we love to read your emails too, so don’t hesitate to share your opinions with us and your fellow customers.

—James

Island Books, But Not the One You’re Thinking Of

Our regular visitors, virtual and otherwise, may have noticed we at Island Books have been doing a good deal of work on the internet lately, trying to connect to people in different ways. Part of this has involved my stumbling around the edges of the World Wide Web, and in so doing, I realized that we have some sister establishments in other regions of the globe. The first of these I found was another Island Books in the middle of the Mediterranean. It’s run by a friendly woman named Liz Groves in the front of an old farm building in the town of Mosta (pop. 19,018), which is the third-largest community on the island of Malta. The store is open on weekends, festival days, and by appointment, and it carries a wide range of English-language titles, with a special emphasis on music scores.

Ms. Groves was kind enough to answer a few questions from me about herself, her business, and her place of residence.

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Q: Tell us a bit about Malta, but if your weather is as nice as I’m imagining, be kind. We in the Puget Sound region just experienced one of the coolest, wettest summers in memory.

A: Firstly, Malta is the tiny speck on the map below the foot of Italy that appears to be kicking the ball of Sicily. We are about 120 kilometers [75 miles] from Libya so our weather fits our geographical position. Malta has been conquered and run by many people but finally reached independence nearly fifty years ago. 

We are now part of the EU and though most Maltese are trilingual (Maltese, English, and Italian) we are fiercely proud of our own, ancient language. Maltese is written in a Western script but comes largely from Arabic with a lot of Sicilian words. 

Our summer weather tends to be in the 30s [86-102 °F], but has been known to reach 45 degrees [113 °F], this coming with high humidity levels in August and September. We end up longing for the rains which arrived last week. I have gone from tank top and shorts to sweater, jeans, socks, and boots in less than a week. Autumn is about as long as spring, that is, a few days.

Q: Do you have recommendations for anyone who wants to read more about Maltese history or about the island today? (As an aside, I realize that what I know about Malta is mainly derived from Thomas Pynchon’s V., which is perhaps not the most authoritative source.)

A: A couple of good books if you are interested in Maltese history would be Nicholas Montsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta—good potted history told against a World War II background. [Ed.: It’s out of print, but we’ll happily order a secondhand copy for anyone who wants one.] Incidentally, more bombs fell upon Malta in one week at the height of the German onslaught than the total number dropped on Germany by the Allies in one month. Bear in mind that Malta is approximately 24 miles by 7 miles! Earlier history is well covered in Ernle Bradford’s translation of The Siege of Malta, 1565. [Ed.: See also Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley.] I found about the only readable thing in Pynchon’s V. was the Valletta bits. I found stream of consciousness amazingly boring, although it captivated me in the ’60s!

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into books and bookselling.

A: Basically I came here from London on holiday and met my husband here in 1974. He, also English, had been working in Malta for seven years. I came for good in 1975. We have both since become Maltese citizens.

Q: Any thoughts about Maltese cuisine and/or cookbooks? The only one I know is The Way We Ate: Memories of Maltese Meals by Matty Cremona.

A: With regard to food, visitors can eat from virtually any cuisine when visiting Malta, which is pretty metropolitan. Native food tends to have come historically from our history or geography so one will find much of the Italian cuisine plus items from Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Malta was a major stop on the Phoenician trade route so most kinds of cooking followed at one time or other.

Q: Where do you most like to travel?

A: I like to visit Chicago and New York at least once a year as two of my main academic suppliers are there. I also buy from colleagues in Texas and Baltimore and I do an annual order with Dover Publications which includes most of their music titles & scores. I travel to the US via London where I love to visit and catch up with my UK colleagues. Many of these keep antiquarian stores in London.

Q: What’s on your bedside table right now? Your all-time favorite books and authors? 

A: My bedside table has Ruth Rendell’s The Water’s Lovely, and I have just finished the first one of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and have to obtain the missing two! I tend to read crime as there is so much available which is forensically accurate or deals with deviant psychology. Favorite books: Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and anything and everything by Evelyn Waugh—wonderful satirist.

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Our email chat was a pleasure, and I for one am interested in finding out more about Malta. For such a small place, there’s a surprising amount to learn. For instance, it turns out that two authors whose books I’ve often sold are of Maltese extraction—novelist Trezza Azzopardi and comics journalist Joe Sacco. There’s a colorful travel guide due next spring to inspire a visit, and until I make it over there, I hope to get more reports from our sun-baked namesake shop.

James

New Nobel Laureate

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday in Stockholm, and poet Tomas Tranströmer is the lucky fella (it’s almost always a fella, as only 12 of the 108 prize-takers have been women). Hey, you’re saying, isn’t he Swedish? The fix was in! Well, it has been almost forty years since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel to one of their own, so I guess you could say they were due. The best way to see if they were right would be to read his poetry, of course, and the best book to pick imageis probably The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. As is inevitable in these cases, copies of his work have immediately disappeared from bookstore shelves and warehouses, so it’ll be a little while before this one comes back into stock. In the meanwhile, we at least have news accounts to suggest he’s an interesting figure. According to the Guardian, “[h]e suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write …  At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.”

I make a prediction every year about who I think is going to get the award, but I haven’t been right yet. One thing that makes the winners so hard to predict is that there are so many credible nominees. Even restricting the options to writers from the US, we have Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom have had their names bandied about as serious candidates. I’m not sure it’s possible to bandy anything seriously, but you know what I mean. North of the border there’s a pair of big-leaguers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and we haven’t begun to touch on the many dozens of authors outside North America who usually form the group from which the winners get tapped. A whole world of authors exists who deserve attention, and at the rate of one Nobel laureate a year, there isn’t time to give them all proper credit.

I’ve been trying to drop hints to the Swedish Academy for a long time about who should get that credit next, but so far they haven’t been listening. If you know anyone in Scandinavia, pass this link along—it couldn’t hurt.

imageMy first dark horse in the race is Ismail Kadare from Albania. Much of his work was produced while that country was controlled by the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, so his novels are often set in the distant past. As such, they discuss various forms of political oppression in the only way they can, allegorically rather than directly. The Three-Arched Bridge is set in the 14th century on the eve of an Ottoman invasion, The Pyramid describes the vast (and unnecessary) construction project launched by the Pharaoh Cheops, The Palace of Dreams takes place in a surreal 19th-century bureaucracy where even sleep is no refuge from the watchful eye of the government, and so on. The restrictions under which Kadare labored served to deepen his writing, forcing him to make his books function on at least two levels. As historical fiction, they’re vibrant and realistic pictures of fascinating times and places, and as covert commentary, they resonate even more powerfully. Born in 1936 with nearly fifty novels behind him, he’s exactly the kind of late-career author the Nobel usually honors. 

imageSomeone in the running who may need to get a few more miles under his belt is Javier Marías (b. 1951). He spent a substantial amount of time in the US growing up and has translated many American writers into Spanish, but has also found the time to write
fourteen novels of his own. He started early, publishing his first book before he was twenty, and is now smack-dab in his prime, probably the most respected literary name in Spain. One of his most characteristic and accessible novels is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, about a man who embarks on an affair with a married woman only to have her die in his arms on their first night together. He spends the rest of book trying to balance his feelings of responsibility against a desire to keep from being exposed, with sometimes comic and sometimes intense results. Marías recently completed what may be his most significant work, the three-part novel Your Face Tomorrow. There’s an enormous amount that goes on between its covers, but imagining James Bond if Proust had created him will give you the idea. In the barest description of the plot, the narrator, a Spaniard living in England, is recruited into a hyper-secret intelligence organization, falls for a colleague, and eventually finds himself in over his head, but that hardly does the book justice. Threads go back to British military snafus in World War II and betrayals during the Spanish Civil War; the meanings of words shift as they’re translated fromimage language to language; the psychology of marriage and estrangement is examined; and the philosophy of violence is investigated from all angles. It’s kind of an exploded diagram of a spy novel where every action actually has a thought behind it, part of an entire stream of consciousness. You won’t tear through it in a weekend, but if you have a season to spend with it, you’ll be well rewarded. 

These two aren’t the only worthies who may someday wear the crown (note to self: check to see if there’s an actual laurel wreath involved) but I’ll save them for another day. Remember, if you hear either of these author names pronounced on the radio in a Swedish accent in years to come, you heard them here first.

James

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